Mike Kueber's Blog

March 15, 2013

San Antonio redistricting follow-up

Filed under: Issues,Law/justice,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 6:11 pm
Tags: , ,

A few weeks ago, I blogged about the travesty of justice inflicted on the Northside of San Antonio by the Castro City Council with the most recent redistricting.  Since that posting, I have stumbled across a provision in San Antonio’s Charter that appears to prohibit what happened, and this potentially provides an avenue for the Northside residents to seek redress. 

The provision – Article II, Section 4 – reads as follows: “The Councilmembers shall be elected from districts or wards which shall be drawn by ordinance and shall be as nearly equal in population as practicable.”  In spite of this specific guidance in the Charter, the Council provided significantly different guidance to the committee responsible for accomplishing the redistricting.  The Council guidance read as follows:

  • Districts shall be configured so that they are relatively equal in total population according to the 2010 Census. In no event should the total deviation in population between the largest and the smallest district exceed ten percent.”

Why would the Council say “relatively equal” and not to “exceed ten percent” when the Charter says “as nearly equal in population as practicable”?

A little internet research reveals that the both of these standards flow from the constitutional requirement for Equal Protection or the so-called “one-person, one vote” rule.  The Supreme Court in Reynolds v. Sims (1964) stated that the “overriding objective must be the substantial equality of population among the various districts,” and subsequent decisions have established that a variance of no greater than 10% for state legislatures would be presumed to comply with Equal Protection.   

But a different standard was established for congressional redistricting.  The Supreme Court in Wesberry v. Sanders (1964) held that with congressional redistricting, “as nearly as is practicable one man’s vote in a congressional election is to be worth as much as another’s.”  Subsequent decisions have established that under the “as nearly as is practical” standard even a 1% deviance between districts is impermissible.  That is why each of Texas’s 36 congressional districts has a population of 698,488, plus or minus 16 voters.  The smallest congressional district (#14) has 698,472 and the biggest district (#22) has 698,504.

A Loyola professor’s website encapsulates this distinction as follows:     

  • The standard for congressional districts is quite strict, with equal population required “as nearly as is practicable.” In practice, this means that states must make a good-faith effort to draw districts with exactly the same number of people in each district within the state. Any district with more or fewer people than the average (also known as the “ideal” population) must be specifically justified by a consistent state policy. And even consistent policies that cause a one percent spread from largest to smallest district will likely be unconstitutional.
  • State and local legislative districts have a bit more flexibility; they have to be “substantially” equal. Over a series of cases, it has become accepted that a plan will be constitutionally suspect if the largest and smallest districts are more than ten percent apart. This is not a hard line: a state plan may be upheld if there is a compelling reason for a larger disparity, and a state plan may be struck down if a smaller disparity is not justified by a good reason.
  • Some states hold their state districts to stricter population equality limits than the federal constitution requires.

Based on my reading of the San Antonio Charter, the city has committed itself to council districts of 132,672 (based on the city’s population of 1,326,721).  Instead the Council recently adopted redistricting with 139,227 residents in District 9 and 126,228 residents in District 3.  There’s an old saying about something being “close enough for government work,” but the Council redistricting appears in violation of the City’s Charter.

When I called the City Attorney’s Office for an explanation, its redistricting attorney told me that they have always done it that way, and no one has previously complained.  When she conferenced-in the city’s legal consultant in Austin, he admitted that the Charter language paralleled the language for the stricter congressional standard, but ultimately the Council is the final arbiter regarding what that language means. 

I’m not sure the consultant is correct.  Arbiters and rule of law don’t easily co-exist.


1 Comment »

  1. […] recently blogged about the one-person, one-vote principle as applied to redistricting in San Antonio.  In the […]

    Pingback by More on the one-person, one-vote principle | Mike Kueber's Blog — March 21, 2013 @ 12:53 pm | Reply

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